What makes Superman super? the “man”

Once again, via Mark – possibly the best essay on Superman I’ve ever read.

Superman isn’t a Jesus analogue because, unlike Jesus, his moral vision is not imposed. The word of Jesus is the word of God and therefore what he says goes, dictation straight from the Almighty. Superman is the exact opposite: a man whose moral vision comes not from a source exterior to humanity but from humanity itself, via Ma and Pa Kent, who are themselves immensely decent people. He ultimately isn’t a received savior, regardless of the origin of his powers; he’s Superman, the apotheosis of what human virtue can be. He’s an aspirational figure first and foremost.

(…) Superman isn’t Superman because of some tragedy which informed his growth. Pa Kent does not die because of a failure on Clark’s part – indeed in most versions of the story, Pa dies when Clark is already Superman. Clark’s knowledge of Krypton doesn’t make him a superhero either; again, this is something he finds out later, too late to traumatize him. Clark is Superman because he decides to be Superman without being prompted. That’s more complex and nuanced a story than “somebody did something to me.” Superman’s story, which informs his entire character, is one of someone who chooses to be good of his own free will and agency, with no influence other than moral upbringing.

This complements my own observation that the best Superman is where Clark Kent is the person and Superman the persona, rather than the way around. I love the moral paragon argument above, but I take a more cynical view that the most interesting Superman stories are ones in which, just like the rest of us, he lapses. Fundamentally, Superman is not Jesus, he’s the opposite as MGK points out. That should also extend to the question of his infallibility. Free will and reason itself are subjective processes, and Superman is Superrational. Which for mankind, isn’t super at all.

An interesting corollary is the question of whether Superman’s goodness is the yin that drives the yang of Luthor’s badness. Read MGK’s essay on Luthor – great analysis of the character, and I fully agree that there’s no villain his equal, because other villains are just… villains.

I’ve enjoyed Batman as a character but he just doesn’t have the same depth of fascination for me – and I’ve long understood that no one could ever “become” Batman.

Superman vs Batman

Steven links to a “rock solid” argument that Batman would beat Superman in a fight, with caveats about “winning”. I find it highly circular, however (aren’t all tautologies “rock solid” by definition?).

The premises – that Supes is dumber, that Batman is more canny, that Supes is more moral – create a very restricted scenario. I can provide a much more compelling argument about the outcome of any hypothetical match, without any axioms whatsoever. All we need to do are make the following observations:

* Superman can fly, has super strength, and heat and xray vision
* Batman has access to Kryptonite, money, and technology

So, the scenario:

1. Batman prepares complex, expensive scheme involving technology and kryptonite
2. Superman arrives on scene, and from aerial position uses xray vision to locate threat, and thus maintain sufficient distance to avoid effect of Kryptonite
3. Superman melts Batman’s technology using heat vision

There’s no scenario in which Batman can deliver the kryptonite to a threatening distance to disable Superman. The fact that Lex Luthor routinely achieved this in the comics, however, is more a failure of imagination on the part of Superman’s writers than Superman’s abilities.

In fact, I will postulate that Superman’s powers effectively render him invincible even to kryptonite since there is no scenario in which kryptonite’s radius of influence can exceed Superman’s area of influence via heat vision and xray vision, or ability to escape via flight and super strength.

This is the problem with Superman, in a nutshell: he’s super. Essentially, he is a god, something barely ever hinted at in the TV and movies and rarely addressed in the comics. There’s really only one ending to the story of Superman, no matter what universe or storyline or timeline you are in: Superman decides to rule the Earth. The tyranny will come, it must come, inexorably. The logic of this is quite simple:

– Superman routinely uses his powers to intervene in human affairs
– Superman routinely makes choices, therefore, about what human affairs to intervene in
– People close to Superman benefit disproportionately from Superman’s intervention

Therefore, Superman is already making decisions about life and death on behalf of the human race. And doing so with no more omniscient wisdom than the most erratic Greek gods – namely, none. He’s ruled by human impulses and acts on them with godlike power. That means that for all his alien-ness, he is still susceptible to the basic law of human civilization: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Interview with Bill Watterson

This is really rare – C&H creator Bill Watterson has given an interview for the first time in over 20 years. In it, he firmly puts Calvin and Hobbes in his past – and intriguingly doesn’t see any role for himself in how the strip has affected people.

What are your thoughts about the legacy of your strip?

Well, it’s not a subject that keeps me up at night. Readers will always decide if the work is meaningful and relevant to them, and I can live with whatever conclusion they come to. Again, my part in all this largely ended as the ink dried.

Because your work touched so many people, fans feel a connection to you, like they know you. They want more of your work, more Calvin, another strip, anything. It really is a sort of rock star/fan relationship. Because of your aversion to attention, how do you deal with that even today? And how do you deal with knowing that it’s going to follow you for the rest of your days?

Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist — how I miss the groupies, drugs and trashed hotel rooms!

But since my “rock star” days, the public attention has faded a lot. In Pop Culture Time, the 1990s were eons ago. There are occasional flare-ups of weirdness, but mostly I just go about my quiet life and do my best to ignore the rest. I’m proud of the strip, enormously grateful for its success, and truly flattered that people still read it, but I wrote “Calvin and Hobbes” in my 30s, and I’m many miles from there.

An artwork can stay frozen in time, but I stumble through the years like everyone else. I think the deeper fans understand that, and are willing to give me some room to go on with my life.

There’s a bit more worth reading – I find it interesting that he essentially saw C&H as an outlet for him to express himself, and then retired it when there was no more left to say. He didn’t see it as a comic strip, in essence, but a novel. It’s a same that he never really regarded his characters as anything but characters; there’s a lot of narative left in them that others could pick up where he left off.

UPDATE – Shamus gives props to the man. Agreed, especially about how much he looks like Uncle Max.

Brian calls the interview a missed opportunity, providing examples of much better questions the interviewer could have asked. He also links the archive I mentioned earlier of Watterson’s old political cartooning work and an inscrutable fan-driven Q&A he did a long time ago. Does anyone know what Watterson is doing now? He seems to be JD Salingeresque.

Garfield Minus Garfield: The Book

gminusg.jpgI’ll admit it – as a kid, I went on a Garfield binge. I had every single Garfield book from #1 onwards, until around #30 or so, at which point the exponential decay of the quality curve became apparent even to me. Luckily by then I had discovered Calvin and Hobbes which was basically Garfield, but funnier, genuinely intellectual, and with characters I could actually relate to. In other words, the opposite of Garfield, and just in time for my transition from childhood to adolescence.

I dunno where all my Garfield books are now – probably in a box in my parents’ garage – but after ~20 years there’s finally a Garfield book I want to buy again – Garfield Minus Garfield, which has been endorsed by The Jim Davis himself. I previously raved about the sublime introspection that the concept of G-G brings to what used to be inane and vapid nonsense, and G-G figures prominently in my dwindling RSS subscriptions. But now we can enjoy it the way it was meant to be. The use of the same form factor as the mainstream Garfield books is a nice touch.

guilty of fictional crimes

Ogiue Maniax has a very important post about a man charged with a crime for possessing obscene manga. I was not familiar with the case prior to his post but it really is a chilling matter. As he points out,

fiction should have every right to depict an aspect of reality while not being completely behold to it or the law. In other words, if fiction were to be forced to depict a world where everything is legally okay or turns out that way, fiction would die. Imagine Death Note without murder.

It’s worth reading the whole post for the details. In a nutshell, what is being punished here is thoughtcrime.

Operation AIRlift: May Day!

Tomorrow is May 1st, also known as May Day – and to mark the occasion, my friend Willow is hosting an event called Operation AIRlift. The basic premise is simple – buy a copy of her graphic novel, AIR Vol 1: Letters from Lost Countries on May 1st, and she will donate a dollar to the Koru Foundation (which focuses on green energy projects in the developing world). More details about AIRlift are here.

Now, of course I am biased because AIR is written by a friend (and co-blogger at Talk Islam). But there’s something very unique about AIR – it’s a strange comic book, equal parts fantasy and science fiction, but firmly set in the modern world. Hilariously, the book has been attacked by clueless zealots like Debbie Schlussel for harboring secret Islamist sympathies, which is a real bonus point in its favor if you ask me. But the serious reviewers in the comics industry are all raving about it, because it’s a lot like Battlestar Galactica in that it explores aspects of society with enough familiarity to be relevant but with enough ambiguity to avoid taking “sides” and thus being a blank slate of sorts for projection upon. Readers who are familiar with Willow’s graphic novel Cairo will know exactly what I mean here – it’s the same team of Willow as writer and M.K. Perker doing the illustrations, so it has a familiar rhythm, but is on the whole a more mature piece of work.

And, speaking of the artwork, it’s profound and subtle at the same time. Here’s some promo art that I think should be immediately recognizable for its artistic reference:

AIR with apologies to Andrew Wyeth
AIR with apologies to Andrew Wyeth

This is simply a great comic book. I read the first 4 issues of the series and am waiting till May Day to get my copy of volume 1. Join me and help out with a good cause as a bonus.